Today, 6th of April, marks the 369th anniversary of the arrival of Dutch settlers in South Africa. The first settlers aimed at establishing trading posts and forts for the Dutch East India Company at the Cape. It marked the first annexation of South Africa. In the 15th century, other armies of slavers, conquerors and thieves came from Portugal but the first so called Foreign Direct Investment on South African soil was Jan van Riebeeck’s brutal criminals.
After serving the company, the free burghers, as they were called, began the second wave of annexation, inland. Notably, this led to the establishment of Stellenbosch led by Simon van der Stel. But even more outrageous invasions were yet to come.
The arrival of the British and subsequent clashes with the Dutch descendants culminated in the 1806 transfer of power over the Cape to London. The free burghers, the Boers, then moved further inland after the British abolished slavery, in part so they could enjoy a competitive advantage in labour markets, against the Boers. Within years the Great Trek of the Boers reflected their losses in intra-capitalist competition, and also catalysed a massive land grab by the white settlers.
Dispossession of the native blacks occurred through systemic violence and pillage. As Ben Magubane put it, “The expanding frontier of ‘settler capitalism’ saw the recrudescence of the worst form of racism. The old social relations of usurious and commercial capitalism, with its conquistadors and slaves, were replaced by the dominion of industrial capital, with its plantation and wage slaves”
Mining introduced systematic super-exploitation through migrant labour, a system that ensured women in Bantustans were so oppressed that their menfolk working in mines, factories and fields were “cheap labour” since employers depended upon a mix of capitalism, racism and patriarchy – and women’s survival instincts – to leave wages among the world’s lowest.
The Land Act of 1913 was the nail in the coffin of this systemic theft of land by white settlers. Combining white nationalism’s sheer entitlement over the primary means of production (land) and the 20th century “Minerals Energy Complex” proletarianising African farmers to work in the mines, farms and factories, the act legalised the massive stripping of black people of the greater part of their land.
Through this Act, 87 percent of land was transferred to the hands of the white oppressors who constituted a mere 13 percent of the population, whilst the rest of the black population was given 13 percent of land, most of which was barren. This arrangement – especially formalisation in Bantustans – was locked in during the years of apartheid following the 1948 National Party election victory in a whites-only contest. Shaking free that formal racism in 1994 was a formidable victory, but it was not sufficient to establish a democracy in which the exploitation of labour and the dispossession of land were not addressed.
Indeed it is against this historic background that land became a major feature in the struggle for liberation by black people, and has remained so. However, black people did not fight for their land simply because it was dispossessed from them through a systemic effort combining violence, political and legal methods. They also fought back because land is a crucial asset and forms the basis of all economic activities and development.
Minerals come from land, farming and forestry take place on land, rivers and streams run across the land, factories and banks are set on land, etc. All technological revolutions would not have been possible without land: coal for the steam and electricity, oil for vehicles, coltan for electronic devices which have enabled the digital revolution, and rare earth minerals for the next stage of technological change.
From different standpoints, our liberation movements raised the issue of land as central to a free South Africa. Of particular importance, the African National Congress addressed land in the 1955 Freedom Charter:
“All shall have the right to occupy land wherever they choose;”
“… all the land re‐divided amongst those who work it to banish famine and land hunger;”
In the 1990s, however, the ANC negotiated a settlement which left intact apartheid-capitalist relations, especially by making property rights a foundational tenet of the Constitution. In this way, land was left in the hands of those who stole it by force and violence. The beneficiaries of this thievery, today hoard millions of hectares of land, often in fenced reserves with little to no game. Moreover, agri-corporate farmers exploit farmworkers and still treat them with racist scorn, paying them a pittance less than the formal R22/hour minimum wage.
Having accepted the terms of the negotiated settlement, the ruling party treated land not as a stolen asset that has to be returned to the rightful residents, but instead as a commodity which could be sold at market value by those who want to use it for residential or economic purposes.
Realising that this was not going to address the issue of redress, the ruling party finally came under pressure from the Economic Freedom Fighters and civil society, and has committed to change the constitution and buy land for the purpose of land reform. But for those who suffered forced removals and violence at the hands of the thieving white farmers, this process has been excruciating slow. Because of the ANC’s commitment to rationalising fiscal expenditure through neoliberal policies, and because of land overpricing by those who hoard it, the purchase of land for redistribution and restitution was conducted at a tortoise pace.
So a new crisis is emerging, one reflected in informal land invasions, which are being repelled by both the African National Congress and Democratic Alliance. In both cities and countryside, land is to treated as a commodity while the state is reducing its overall expenditure on public goods and services, which together have dealt a blow to land reform. In the old KwaZulu Bantustan, the added problem is feudal-type control of land by the Zulu king.
The combination of these factors meant, whilst land could be redistributed back to blacks, it would mostly be those who can buy it privately or control it through crony relationships with chiefs, i.e., rich blacks. The overwhelming majority of toiling South Africans have thus not seen redress in this sense, and the distribution across races has not meant restitution to the majority of the dispossessed.
It is therefore no surprise that by 2016, government had only distributed only 5.46% of the commercial agricultural land, a far cry fro the 30% promised for the 1994-99 period in the Reconstruction and Development Programme. According to a University of the Western Cape Programme in Land and Agrarian Studies working paper in 2019, land distributed for restitution purpose only comprised 3.6 million hectares, with another 3.6 million hectares redistributed for other purposes. Those who had bought the land privately without the involvement of government, the rich, had bought more than half of the land that was distributed for redistribution purposes. The land audit report in 2017 showed that 72% of South Africa’s agricultural land was still in the hands of whites.
The failure to redistribute land to communities has also allowed mining conglomerates to buy, own or control land next to villages. In turn, villages have been left to fend off these mega polluting and land degrading operations whose main contributions to the communities are negative externalities. Had communities owned these lands, they would have had a choice as to whether to sell their lands to corporations. This choice was removed from them because government has left the land property relations unchanged.
Having been marginalised by patriarchal systems of pre-colonial annexation and by the white patriarchal ownership that prevailed after annexation, women, despite having skills and ambitions to till the land for subsistence and commercial purpose, are marginalised even more. Female individual owners own less than 14 percent, according to the Land Audit.
In 2017, realising they are becoming unpopular, not only because of appalling levels of corruption, mismanagement of resources and failure to provide quality adequate services, but of failure to distribute land, the ANC opportunistically took a resolution to expropriate land without compensation, just like Zimbabwe’s ruling party ZANU PF did when it sought to outmanoeuvre the unions and opposition parties.
Before and after the 2017 African National Congress’ Nasrec convention, activists demanded the amendment of the constitution. In what has now become a draft bill, the courts are now situation to determine the amount or eligibility of payment for any land that is expropriated for land reform.
SAFTU holds that this is nothing but an attempt to gloss over but retain the commodity-based willing-seller willing-buyer approach to land reform. Like its predecessor, the bill will not bring any fundamental change in the expropriation and distribution of land. The courts will simply pronounce a market value for any land, because bourgeois law holds sacred the property of those who own it – whether they bought it, or stole it through colonial annexation and discriminatory land act.
In our inaugural congress, SAFTU resolved to campaign for expropriation of land without compensation, particularly because the land was not only historically taken from the masses of black people, but because it is a basis for economic development and prosperity.
SAFTU rejects the bill, which only makes it a conditional provision that land can be expropriated at a nil rate when determined by the courts. In our view, land expropriation must be expedited without hindrance of the courts, so to ensure that
SAFTU, holds a view that the distribution of land for agricultural purposes should be accompanied by the assistance from government. Seeds, tractors, and other technological equipment and funding should be provided to those farmers so that they increase the food security of this country.